In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Papacy and the Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Archival Catalogs and Guides
  • The Catholic Reformation
  • European Sovereignty in the Atlantic World
  • Indigenous Peoples and the Christianization of the Americas
  • Iberian Expansion, the Catholic Church, and the Patronato Real
  • The Inquisition
  • Propaganda Fide and the Conversion of Non-Christians
  • Protestant Expansion
  • The Catholic Church in Africa
  • The Atlantic Slave Trade

Atlantic History Papacy and the Atlantic World
Shona Johnston
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 December 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 December 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0150


The early modern papacy (c. 1500–1800) constituted a vast bureaucracy (sometimes called the Holy See or the Vatican) inherited from the medieval church and dedicated to asserting papal authority throughout the Catholic world. The pope dictated Catholic religious orthodoxy and oversaw a network of church offices that controlled the activities of theologians, the clergy, European monarchs, and individual believers. The discovery of the New World and the opening of sub-Saharan Africa to European traders in the 15th century rapidly expanded the boundaries of the Christian world and brought with it new political and religious challenges for the papacy. Papal officials disseminated information on new discoveries in the Atlantic, provided a theoretical framework to justify conquest and colonization, and ensured that the promotion of the Catholic faith lay at the heart of Spanish and Portuguese expansion. Key colonial institutions—such as the patronato real and the Inquisition—firmly bound temporal authority in the Atlantic world to the spiritual authority of the papacy. Under the leadership of Gregory XIII (1572–1585), the papacy instituted a series of reforms that sought to strengthen Vatican control of the church and revitalize the Catholic faith. Based on the findings of the Council of Trent (1545–1563), these new reforms standardized Catholic practices, reigned in the abuses of the clergy, and promoted missionary endeavors across the globe. The Catholic Church had long viewed the conversion of non-Christian peoples as an essential aspect of the church’s civilizing mission. By the late 16th and 17th centuries, revitalized missionary orders, sponsored and supported by the papacy, targeted Catholic, Protestant, and non-Christian populations in an attempt to expand the Catholic faith and ensure the political and cultural dominance of Catholicism. Papal attempts to coordinate and control this international program of missionary expansion culminated in the creation, in 1622, of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, or Propaganda Fide. The increasing emphasis placed on missionary activities and the civilizing mission of the early modern church placed the papacy at the center of key European debates over the justification of conquest, the treatment of colonized peoples, and the enslavement of non-Christians in the Atlantic world.

General Overviews

Two recent synthetic articles, Armstrong 2007 and Greer and Mills 2007, offer general readers, students, and scholars alike an excellent introduction to the topic of the papacy and the Atlantic world. Together, these works provide a broad geographic overview of Catholic activity in the region, survey the current historiography, and suggest key areas for scholarly research. Readers should also consult the works cited in the Oxford Bibliographies articles on Catholicism, Religion, and Missionaries. For readers unfamiliar with the broader history of the papacy, there are a number of well-written general histories by leading scholars in the field that survey the topic from the period of the early Christian Church through the modern day. Originally conceived as an accompaniment to a televised history of the papacy, Duffy 2006 provides a comprehensive and accessible narrative of the subject that stresses the significance of the institution of the papacy to world history. O’Malley 2010 focuses on the pivotal role played by individual popes in shaping the institution of the papacy and the Catholic Church as a whole. Norwich 2011 approaches the history of the papacy from the perspective of the institution’s long entanglement with European and global politics.

  • Armstrong, Megan. “Transatlantic Catholicism: Rethinking the Nature of the Catholic Tradition in the Early Modern Period.” History Compass 5.6 (2007): 1942–1966.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1478-0542.2007.00483.x

    Stresses the global nature of Catholic expansion in the early modern period. Argues for more comparative study of Catholic tradition and its influence on cultural development throughout the Atlantic world.

  • Duffy, Eamon. Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes. 3d ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.

    A well-balanced narrative history of the papacy. The first half of this text is devoted to the medieval period and the second to developments from 1500 onwards. This new edition contains additional chapters on recent papal history. Includes color illustrations.

  • Greer, Allan, and Kenneth Mills. “A Catholic Atlantic.” In The Atlantic in Global History, 1500–2000. Edited by Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra and Erik R. Seeman, 3–19. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007.

    Surveys the growing historiography on the expansion of the Catholic Church and Catholic Christianity in the Atlantic world. Suggests the importance of an Atlantic approach to understanding the development of religious traditions in the Americas.

  • Norwich, John Julius. Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy. New York: Random House, 2011.

    A popular history focused on the diplomatic and political aspects of papal history. Highly critical of the modern Catholic Church’s social and cultural politics.

  • O’Malley, John W. A History of the Popes: From Peter to the Present. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010.

    A clear and concise survey of papal history focused on the individual contributions of several popes who played a critical role in the development of the Catholic Church. Designed for use by undergraduate students and non-Catholic readers.

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